Five-time Paralympic gold medallist Ellie Simmonds OBE heads to far-flung Madagascar for a nature-filled adventure.
Whenever I travel, one of my favourite things to do is spend time in foreign supermarkets. It might sound silly, but you can learn so much about a country’s culture by browsing the shelves and seeing what the locals are putting in their baskets. So when I arrive in Nosy Be, an island off the northern tip of Madagascar, the very first thing I do is head straight to the mini market to peruse the tins of beans, fresh watermelons and wacky-looking liqueur on offer.
Madagascar is undoubtedly beautiful. There is no other place like it. Cast into the whale-filled Indian ocean – three hours by plane from Nairobi in Kenya – it’s best known for lush rainforests, shortbread-sand beaches and long-limbed lemurs that swing from tree to tree. I expected paradise, and that is precisely what I was met with as I stepped off the plane: a tiny, palm-fringed airport, the feel of the sun on my skin and the scent of frangipani flowers in the air (a far cry from the greyness and barbed wire I left behind at the airport in London).
About 45 minutes by bus from Nosy Be’s airport – along roads flanked by bustling markets and puffed-up chickens pecking away at the dirt – you’ll find the Vanila Hotel. Unpretentious and friendly, it’s a beautiful, airy space just a few steps from the beach. There are 56 rooms and suites (some with garden views, some overlooking the ocean), a picturesque infinity pool and consistently smiley staff.
You could while away days here lolling on the pristine sand, but I’m more of a get-out-and-explore kind of traveller, so after checking in I make it my mission to see how the locals live. I strongly believe that you don’t get a true feel for a place if you just surround yourself with other holidaymakers. Instead, I love walking down side streets, getting lost and having chats with the locals (I ask a lot of questions, but they never seem to get annoyed).
If you’re travelling solo, booking onto small group excursions is also a great way to meet people and get under the skin of a destination. So after taking advantage of the hotel’s wifi to book up my week, I spend the next few days enjoying some fascinating day trips.
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On a visit to Nosy Be’s capital, Hell-Ville, I spend hours walking round the market, dodging cars, drinking coconut water fresh from the shell and peering cautiously at the fly-covered meats laid out on the stalls. On a trip to the rainforest, I watch in awe as big-eyed lemurs hoot high above me and then crash through the trees, their distinctive black and white fur flashing in the sun (the best time to see lemurs here is from June to November, with babies arriving in October and November).
I also see spiders, snakes and chameleons (so many chameleons) of different varieties, including the Brookesia micra, the world’s smallest chameleon which can sit on the tip of your finger. In the evening, I tuck into black beans, rice and fresh fish, and sleep soothed by the sound of the sea.
My second week is spent out on the water. I’m quite good at switching off the training mindset when on holiday (it’s the only time I don’t feel guilty for not being in the pool), but I’m still very much drawn to water. So most of my travels involve hot weather and beaches. (Fiji, Tonga and Hawaii are firmly on my bucket list.) That said, I used to be absolutely terrified of the sea. I think it was the fear of the unknown. With competitive swimming, it’s within a controlled environment – I know what’s underneath me and I know what’s happening. The sea can be very daunting, it’s so vast. But when I met ocean conservationist and free-diver Hanli Prinsloo a few years ago, she really helped me to conquer that fear and soon became a friend.
She took me out to Mozambique, where we swam with wild dolphins and heard the beautiful call of humpback whales under the water. It made me realise that the sea can be liberating, and while it can be rough on the surface, it’s always peaceful down below.
So I jump at the chance to meet up with Hanli in Madagascar. We stay with a small group of friends in a villa just north of Nosy Be, and spend our days free-diving in the ocean. As soon as I dip my head under the surface, I feel soothed by the tranquillity of the water, which is warm enough to mean I don’t need a wetsuit. At these depths (I make it to 18 metres) the pressure can hurt your eardrums, but once you get used to it, it’s a truly magical experience. We see shoals of tropical fish, stingrays and jellyfish, and spend time with turtles which give us the most cursory glances before continuing to nibble away at the seagrasses.
But the most special thing is swimming with whale sharks. They really are gentle giants, and glide by our boat like slow-moving buses. I slip carefully into the water and approach one, which hangs still with its huge mouth wide open as it feeds on plankton. I’m careful to stay by its side where it can see me, and just enjoy the privilege of being in the same space as these remarkable creatures.
I’m quite an eco-conscious person, I do my bit to recycle and reduce single-use plastics, but beautiful Madagascar has reinforced how important it is to preserve this planet. Knowing how incredible the world is makes me want to protect it even more, and if we all do our own little bit, and take care of the places we travel to, we will eventually make a big difference.
Ellie was just 13 at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, when she won gold in both the 100m and 400m freestyle and broke her own world record. She now has eight medals to her name, five of which are gold. When she’s not in the water, she loves to bake – anything but fruit cake.
Images: I AM WATER, Ocean Travel